Zoo keepers work with animals all year

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Bret Pilney, the primary area keeper at the Sunset Zoo, sits in between Suzy, the oldest chimpanzee in the exhibit and the youngest, Codo, on April 15, 2016. (Emily Starkey | The Collegian)

Twice a day, Bret Pilney, primary area keeper, feeds the animals in his area of Sunset Zoo in Manhattan. He feeds them fresh foods and a Type A dry food packed with nutrients beneficial to that species. The chimpanzees get primate chow, for example.

Jordan Green, assistant keeper, said she does what she can to help Pilney in the task of feeding all the animals he is in charge of by measuring out portions and anything else she can do to help.

“I do what I can to make his day go a little faster,” Green said.

Pilney and Green take care of the chimpanzees, gibbons, birds and colobus monkeys, or “skunk monkeys” as Pilney describes them. They make sure the animals are fed, their enclosures are cleaned and they are mentally and physically stimulated.

“Being in captivity, things can become somewhat boring or routine,” Ella Casey, assistant zoo director, said. “We do things throughout the day to add something different.”

Pilney said these things can include moving things around in the enclosures, adding new smells and more.

“(Training) is probably my favorite part,” Pilney said. “You get to touch (the chimp’s) hands, tell them to turn their hands.”

Casey said the training is important when doing medical procedures. It helps the animals relieve stress when they are trained to do simple things like putting their arm in a cuff for shots or not panicking when pricked by a needle. For example, Casey said the leopard is being desensitized to needles, like humans are, through training.

Through working with them, the keepers get to learn about each of the animals’ personalities, likes and dislikes. For example, Casey said Suzy, the elderly chimpanzee, likes to take her medications with Hershey’s chocolate syrup.

“Codo is a goofball,” Pilney said.

Codo is the 3-year-old chimpanzee who can be seen doing snow angels in the grass, doing somersaults all over the place and picking on his sister, Nya, Pilney said.

Casey said Suzy is recognizable to the community due to her cataract eye, though it can sometimes be more difficult for people who are not around the animals often to tell the difference between them.

“Once you get to know the animals, it’s just like twins — if you’re the mom, you get to know the difference,” Casey said.

Casey said she and the keepers have a strong passion for these animals and keep very irregular weekly schedules to make sure they are well taken care of. Even though the zoo is open 360 days out of the year, the animals still need to be taken care of on those extra five days, Casey said.

“Everyone else in our world has Saturdays and Sundays off traditionally, so it’s just kind of a sacrifice (the keepers) make,” Casey said.

The zoo’s main goal is to promote animal conservation in the community, Casey said. She said a good example of their commitment to this cause is through the care of the newborn maned wolf pup, Fin, who was rejected by his mother. The zoo was concerned for his survival without a mother to teach him how to be a wolf. Through community support, the zoo was finally able to pair Fin with a Labrador puppy, Matty.

Due to the endangered nature of the maned wolf species, Casey said it was very important that the zoo went to all these lengths to help Fin survive.

“Our goal is to conserve the species,” Casey said.

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